- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

The monstrous defensive lineman-turned-temporary fullback claimed he didn’t believe it when quarterback Jim McMahon called his number near the goal line in the third quarter of Super Bowl XX. His Chicago Bears were leading the New England Patriots 37-3, making another touchdown totally superfluous. The idea was for superstar running back Walter Payton to score his first Super Bowl touchdown after waiting 11 years.

Nonetheless, McMahon took the snap, turned and shoved the football into the fullback’s ample belly. Whereupon William “Refrigerator” Perry thundered 1 yard into the end zone - and into a strangely enduring football fame of sorts.

The date was Jan. 26, 1986, at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. Nearly every winter, the Fridge’s feat is remembered and shown on TV at Super Bowl time. Somewhat inexplicably it would seem, his five seconds of fame have lasted 23 years.

Although he retired from football in 1994, Perry remains a mini-celebrity. Memorabilia involving him is available for sale all over the Internet. He has had his own line of grills, coolers and, naturally, refrigerators.

“I’m going to be bigger than George Foreman, in every way,” he insisted.

Including silliness. Since his football days, Perry thrown himself (not lightly) into such activities, among others, as Wrestlemania, a boxing exhibition against 7-foot-7 NBA player Manute Bol and a hot dog-scarfing contest with TV analyst John Madden. He also has pretended to be an actor in various movies and TV shows.

A three-time All-American defensive lineman at Clemson, Perry was grabbed, so to speak, by Bears coach Mike Ditka in the first round of the 1985 NFL Draft. Pro Football Hall of Famer Ditka, one of the sport’s most renowned tough guys, must have had a soft spot in his heart for the Fridge - one most evidenced during Chicago’s 15-1 regular-season record and in the Super Bowl during Perry’s rookie season.

In most of his 11 seasons with the Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, Perry was more of a journeyman than anything else. In 138 games, he had just 29.5 sacks and was credited with 506 tackles. In fact, his NFL career after his first season likely didn’t match that of his less heralded younger brother, Michael Dean Perry.

Yet everybody seemed fascinated when this man mountain - the Fridge weighed as much as 382 pounds during his playing days - lined up on offense. In his rookie season, he carried the ball five times for 7 yards and two touchdowns and even caught a 4-yard TD pass. By so doing, plus lumbering through a ludicrous rap number called “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” he became an instant celebrity.

Largely forgotten is the fact that Perry was tackled for a 1-yard loss while trying to pass earlier in the Super Bowl. Of course, his TD more than made up for that.

“I was overwhelmed when Coach Ditka called [the scoring play] because I thought I was going in to block for Walter,” Perry admitted after the game.

Ditka later apologized for not giving Payton the chance to score, but his words meant even less than Perry’s touchdown itself. The score merely gave the Bears their whopping final victory margin of 36 points (46-10), at the time the most lopsided Super Bowl result.

Actually, the Fridge shouldn’t have been surprised, much less overwhelmed.

“We practiced [the play] during the week,” he recalled. “When we got down to the goal line, Coach called me over [on the sideline] and said, ‘Big boy, here’s your chance.’ So he put me in, and there it was.”

Indeed. But Perry’s days as a running back were numbered. After he fumbled while carrying the ball in 1986, Ditka pretty much kept him off offense. The Fridge lugged the pigskin only three times in seven more full seasons with the Bears.

After hanging up his cleats, Perry founded a construction company in South Carolina and continued to do TV commercials centering on his weight. (One for clothing had the Fridge avowing, “If they can fit me, they can fit anybody.”) And the fans still love him.

“When I go out of town, people look and say, ‘There’s the Fridge,’” he said. “They come up, want my autograph and want to take pictures.”

Nowadays, the Fridge is “just sitting around relaxing and fishing” in his hometown of Aiken, S.C. Since last June, he also has dealt with the effects of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease of the peripheral nervous system that causes progressive weakness and can be life-threatening.

“I’m doing fine,” Perry, 46, said in November. “I’m walking a little bit and rehabbing. Tell everybody I’m doing better. I hope to be up and about in a walker real soon.”

Let’s hope he is. The Fridge has always been a tough guy to get down or keep down.

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